My little phoney

Belatedly caught War Horse yesterday afternoon. (It seemed like it would suit the matinee mood, and it did.) I had been forewarned by enough critics I respect that this was not Spielberg’s finest hour, and that after the clever horse’s-eye-view of the book, and the clever puppetry of the stage play, this was a pretty conventional telling of the tale, so I went in with low expectations. My expectations were met.

I have nothing against Steven Spielberg. It would be churlish to deny him the crown of the-modern-day’s-Howard-Hawks (a big compliment from where I’m sitting), but he doesn’t always knock it out of the park. How could he? But having made two strong, serious films about World War II, I’d hoped for something a bit more meaningful and original from him about World War I. Instead, outside of a couple of good, David Lean-exhuming set pieces, War Horse felt like a string of sometimes excruciating clichés and mechnical story beats. It reminded me more of Lassie Come Home, or, for a more contemporary but no less helpful comparison, Babe, than it did Saving Private Ryan. As has been pointed out already, the establishing act, set in rural Devon, was about as authentic-seeming as The Darling Buds Of May. Since Spielberg went to all the trouble of shooting it in Devon (and a bit of Wiltshire), this is a pretty unfortunate outcome.

A mostly English cast worked wonders with the Devon accent, but set, as they were, within a totally unreal, backlot vision of country life, even the august likes of David Thewlis and Emily Watson sounded hokey. It’s not giving anything away to say that the action returns to Devon at the end, but when it does, Spielberg opts to paint the sky a golden/queasy yellow, as if perhaps Michael Bay had sat in for him that day, and everything looks post-apocalyptic, rather than Gone With The Wind glorious. This heavy-handed approach is fairly typical of the whole film. Nothing is allowed to go past without being sugar-coated or drained of blood.

Based of course on a children’s book, this is a “family film” about one boy and his horse who must both go off to war without losing their 12A certificate, and as such, even the horrors of the barbed wire and the trenches and the mustard gas feel sanitised for afternoon consumption. (At one stage, the sail of a windmill in the foreground helpfully goes past to discreetly mask an act of violence in the background. Technical masterstroke, or cheap sleight of hand?) It’s hard to convey the obscenity of a conflict that killed nine million people without showing bodyparts in massive piles, but co-writer Richard Curtis managed to do it on a BBC Comedy budget 20 years ago, which is ironic.

Novelist Michael Morpurgo’s was such an interesting dramatic approach to the conflict, too; because the Great War marked the cusp of fully mechanised combat, the one million conscripted horses sent over to France from England represented the end of an era. It’s truly bizarre to see the first cavalry charge, on horseback, with swords outstretched, the beasts eventually cut down by German machine guns. This is one of the film’s successful set-pieces. Not only is it technically brilliant, it has something profound to say, and its outcome is unexpected. Spielberg pulls back from the massacre and, in long shot, shows us a field full of dead horses. This is not to suggest that Spielberg does not care about the human dead, as one rather extreme review put it, rather that he is adapting a book and play that put a new focus on the animals, none of whom volunteered.

Hey, I’m the soppy animal lover who’s supposed to lap all this stuff up. And yes, I had a tear in my eye at one point, which I won’t spoil, but I will say it had nothing to do with the suffering of a human man. To be honest, with the subject matter, and with the obligatory button-pushing John Williams score to help prompt me WHEN TO BE SAD, I was disappointed not to be in middle-aged floods the whole way through. But I found War Horse oddly unmoving for the most part, even with all those gorgeous animal actors onscreen. (Apparently Joey was played by 14 separate horses; I was disappointed they were not named in the credits, which I sat through to the bitter end by the way.)

Drama can drift into melodrama very quickly if you don’t watch yourself, and some of the broader strokes in War Horse do just that – the “comedy” goose chasing off the nasty landlord and his men; the entire village turning out to watch Joey pull a plough through an intransigent field. And yet, the film’s most audacious sequence – its equivalent of the famous No-Man’s Land kickabout of legend, whose details I won’t spoil – works.

It’s pretty clear that War Horse is not a bad film, but I fear it was a bad idea to turn an unusual book and an unusual play (I understand Curtis and co-writer the also talented populist Lee Hall took elements of both) into a usual film. Spielberg likes to entertain as many people as possible. This is an admirable ambition, and has led to some of the best blockbusters of my lifetime. But it’s significant, I think, that he went all the way up to a 15 certificate for his two WWII films.

I don’t think you can “blame” the deficiencies of War Horse on the script, and you certainly can’t blame it on  the acting. Some of our finest thesps crop up in tiny roles and do great things with them: Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, Geoff Bell, Toby Kebbel, Johnny Harris. But with all that talent on tap, and with two war horses like Curtis and Hall at the typewriter, something went awry. It must be somebody’s fault. And it wasn’t the animal trainers.

At the end of the day, it’s a battle between sentimentality and horror, and ends up in a no-man’s land of its own making.

I haven’t mentioned Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut, and his chance to play the Roman emperor onscreen, having already played him onstage, but if you like your Shakespeare in a modern setting – in this case, an unnamed war-torn Balkan country, albeit filmed in Belgrade so you get the general idea – it’s convincingly done. And Fiennes makes a pretty powerful Coriolanus, with his shaved head, dog tags and khaki vest. Less impressive is Gerard Butler as his nemesis, who mangles some of his lines, but his is not the worst crime; for me, an overcooked Vanessa Redgrave had the effect of smothering all around her whenever she was onscreen. Also, there is too much reliance of faked TV news footage to explain the action and to underline the modern re-staging, and I found Jon Snow delivering Iambic pentameter to be unintentionally comic (unless it was intentionally comic, in which case I withdraw my criticism). But I really liked Brian Cox and James Nesbitt, and I managed to follow the story, which is not always easy with what are, let us not be coy, very old plays. The story is a bit repetitive, but that’s the bloke who wrote the play’s fault, surely?

I always needed a bit of visual help when studying Shakespeare at school, and will always be grateful to the BBC Macbeth with Ian McKellen, and the BBC Othello with Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins. I’m sure this will help students of Coriolanus. And hey, it’s another of the 50 films Jessica Chastain made last year. She’s the female Ryan Gosling.



Apologies for the late running of these film reviews. I am hard at work writing the second series of Mr Blue Sky and that must take priority, as you can imagine. (Deadline for all six episodes: end of February.)

12 thoughts on “My little phoney

  1. I’ve never forgiven Spielberg for the cowardly bit in Schindler’s List when the women are herded into the showers… the tension builds… and *water* comes out of the showers. In real life, of course, poison gas came out of the showers – and to avoid that fact for a cheap dramatic device (and to spare the feelings of American viewers who apparently can’t be confronted with the full reality of war or death) pretty much ruined the whole film for me. You can be sure that the windmill’s blades hid the violence for the same reason….

    • I see where you’re coming from, Guy, but Schindler’s List is pretty brutal and unforgiving elsewhere. When Goethe shoots that prisoner randomly from his balcony it’s probably more horrific than gassing a whole hut full of people – the sheer pointlessness and nonchalance of it. Also, the women in the shower have already been dehumanised, objectified, stripped, herded and terrified before the showers are turned on. If he’d cut from there, and not shown the water, it would have been no less appalling without the gas.

      • Yes it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. But for me, that scene was what really stuck in my mind. I might be the only one but if not, I think he dropped the ball a bit there. Still I agree there was a lot less shrinkage from the horror than you would expect from a mainstream Hollywood director. Imagine though if it had been made by Paddy Considine or Gaspar Noé…

  2. @guyjames
    I know where you’re coming from, but wasn’t Schindlers List based (how closely, I’m not sure) on true events, which happened to real people? Spielberg was telling the story of a particular group of people who went through a particular experience. This may well have included being herded into a shower cubicle, expecting to be gassed, only to have the relief of water coming out instead of Zyklon-B. Even if it was fictionalised, I’d make the argument that it was valid to highlight feelings of intense relief in such a horrific context. I’m not saying you’re wrong, of course, just that it could easily be argued either way.

    • If that scene was actually not fictionalised (I would contend that it probably was), it may have in fact been more honest to have fictionalised it so that they were actually gassed. It’s my guess that not many people got a reprieve in that way once they had been herded into concentration camp ‘showers’, and the film would have been more honest to show it. I agree it does make one sympathise with the feelings of relief but these sadly were probably not typical.

  3. I broadly agree with your assessment Andrew but in the end Spielberg tends to offer investors a return on their money, so seats tend to get filled and if that means a dollop of treacle then so be it.
    I would defend the decision to restrict the violence to gain a 12A cert. I hate it when a children’s story is adapted too strongly and you have the inevitable disappointment of telling your child, or worse one of your children, that they can’t see the film of a book they loved.

    When I saw WarHorse there was a round of applause at the end. I didn’t join in, but most did. For Spielberg that surely means Job Done?

    • Good point re: kids/book/disappointment. I guess, at the end of the day, it could be a kids’ film. And if it tells them that war is rubbish and horses are not to be exploited, then job done indeed. But the film of The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was more successful in this regard, I’d say.

  4. Shortly before BBC7 became 4Extra I heard a reading of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on a weekend morning in the children’s slot. Leaving aside questions of historical accuracy (which to be fair they dealt with in a follow-up interview with, as I recall, a historian), the ending of that certainly packs a punch.

  5. But War Horse is a kid’s film, whereas Saving PR isn’t (well, the first 20 minutes at least). Perhaps, Andrew, you were wanting an adult version of War Horse. I don’t mean adult in a rude way. That’s an entirely different movie altogether, one I don’t think Spielberg would want to be associated with.

    • I think I wanted a “family film” that didn’t treat the adult members of that family film as if they were idiots.

  6. Hmm. I was hoping you’d review “War Horse”. I’ve been watching the development of the story through play and film for some time, with some degree of interest. I read the book when it first came out (I had to look it up – it came out in 1982, when I was seven). That’s a good age to read it, as it’s an affecting tale, that doesn’t demand too much knowledge of the wider story behind it. One that inspires you to further reading. It doesn’t strike me as good material for a Hollywood movie, though. A Children’s BBC adaptation, maybe.

    I wish I could recommend that you go back in time and read the book as a child! I have no idea what I would think of it now, but I definitely recommend it to anybody who has kids. I daresay I shall see the film sometime, but your review does rather say what I’d expected. It’s odd how adaptations so often soften a tale. You can get away with a lot more in a book, it seems, than you can at the cinema or on TV!

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